Raleigh, N.C. — State Senate leaders Friday unveiled a constitutional hat trick – three proposed amendments to the state constitution tucked into a single bill. All three, if approved by a three-fifths vote of both the House and the Senate, would appear on the ballot in this November's election.
The first amendment in House Bill 3 is the eminent domain amendment proposed in the original bill. It would restrict the government's taking of property only for "public use," striking the words "and public benefit," which some say can be construed as allowing condemnation for economic development reasons. It also requires "just compensation" for the forced sale of land to the government and says that compensation shall be determined by a jury if requested by any party.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said the amendment is a response to the notorious "Kelo" case of 2004, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the town of New London, Conn.'s use of eminent domain to take land to then be sold to a developer met the definition of "public purpose" under the Constitution but said states could set a higher standard.
"This is no change to the law," McGrady explained. "It's just a codification of the current law in the (state) constitution."
The second amendment is the Senate proposal unveiled earlier this month to cap the state income tax rate at 5.5 percent, but it also adds a constitutional requirement for an emergency reserve savings fund.
Lawmakers would be required to deposit 2 percent of the budget into the fund annually until it reaches 12.5 percent of the annual budget. Lawmakers would be able to skip the deposit or to use the money in the fund only by a two-thirds vote of both chambers. The governor would not have authority to use the money.
"We all know at some point in time, and probably sooner rather than later, we're going to run back into a recession," said Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, adding that the current savings reserve "is not really set up like it should be."
"It will take 80 House members and 34 senators to withdraw funds from this account," Jackson said. "The governor cannot withdraw funds from this account without calling us back."
Asked how the proposal differs from Colorado's controversial constitutional spending limit, Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Onslow, said the North Carolina limit "isn't a true TABOR," or taxpayer's bill of rights.
"I think it limits our options as a state," objected Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. "We don't need to put financial handcuffs on. That gives me great concern. I think that future members of this General Assembly need to have all options open to them."
Section three would amend to the constitution to add that North Carolinians have a constitutional right "to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife." It would not affect the requirements to buy licenses for hunting for fishing or any other laws protecting wildlife or public safety.
Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, said the proposal "will simply try to protect those traditions and make sure that we still have a strong heritage."
The measure passed the Senate Rules Committee with little debate Friday afternoon and is expected on the Senate floor Monday.
After the meeting, McKissick told WRAL News he believes all three proposed amendments are unnecessary – except, perhaps, for political reasons.
"It is absolutely essential for [Republicans] to get their base out, because they're afraid of what may happen," McKissick said. "This is a way to ensure that they'll be able to."